Bibimbar, a subterranean restaurant in San Francisco’s Financial District, hides from the city’s view like precious abalone on the bottom of a boulder. A parade of businesses’ shared signage on Bush Street is the only way to know that Bibimbar and a cadre of other restaurants lie directly below in Belden Place’s International Food Court. Steep steps lead to a cafeteria-like counter and a tiled floor littered with a smattering of gold-backed chairs and plain tables.
The first time Angel Davis stepped inside, she says the restaurant spurred a complete rush of nostalgia. Davis, who owns wine bar Millay off Market Street, is half Korean and moved to California from South Korea when she was a kid. Eating stir-fried kimchi and sipping barley tea at Bibimbar felt natural, Davis recalls. The food, including soju and seaweed salad, tasted like a slice of Korea brought to the Bay. “It felt so familiar,” Davis says. “It’s just like a place you’d go to in Korea.”
Bibimbar’s owner, Ina Jungin Lee, took over the restaurant in 2012 and, in the years since, she’s built a mini-empire of restaurants, bars, and other Korean food businesses in San Francisco. A Korean immigrant, she came to San Francisco for graphic design in the early aughts with no particular sense of purpose. But over the years she’s become laser-focused on her goal of spreading Korean culture through food and drink — and she’s brought her entire family from South Korea to join the cause. Now, whether at her Valencia Street snack spot BoBop or her Excelsior hideout for house music and soju Korner Store, she’s firmly pursuing that mission.
Of course, San Francisco’s Korean dining scene has strengthened in the decade and change since Lee took over Bibimbar. The city is home to the first Korean American chef in California to win a Michelin star, Corey Lee, who began his ascent in 2010 with Benu and most recently opened upscale Korean barbecue restaurant San Ho Won in 2022. Trendier San Francisco diners may think of Queens and Um.ma when they think of the city’s more casual Korean dining options. But for more than 10 years, Lee has been putting in work too, creating vegan kimchi — she calls her fishless rendition “kingchi” — and serving soy sauce crab to any and all interested.
When Ina Jungin Lee stepped off the plane in Boise, Idaho, in May of 2000 at 20 years old, it was the first time she’d flown on a plane and the first time she’d been in the United States. Her cousin, Hyochang Lee, was studying at the University of Idaho, and she wanted to begin her “American life” too, she says. Then her cousin was called back to South Korea for military duty just a few months after she arrived. “I was all alone in this big land,” she says.
Now, she’s confident and gregarious, the kind of person who touches your arm from across the table to make a point before burying her face in her hands to stifle laughter. She was born in Seoul, and credits her mom, who she calls “Mama Ahn,” with helping her develop an early affection for food. Back home, the family owned a restaurant, run primarily by her mother, and Lee was inspired by the way her mother took care of everyone while maintaining an active social life. She’s an amazing cook, Lee says. Banchan, kimchi, various stir-fries: Mama Ahn could crank anything out with ease and pizzazz. “I used to wonder, ‘Maybe she has a magic wand.’ In 10 minutes she could put so much food on the table. She’s the main spirit of the family.”
Lee found a lot of Korean expats living in Boise, and she says many students stuck around Idaho even though they told her they’d prefer to see other parts of the country. Lee remedied this by taking lots of Greyhound buses. Her first stop was Manhattan. “It took three and a half days,” Lee laughs. “I was brave, or naive. My ancestors looked after me.”
That trip, in 2002, marked the first time she saw Korean restaurants in the United States. It wasn’t lost on her that they were in big cities — not Boise. But she wasn’t thinking about owning Bibimbar or creating a community of Korean immigrants just yet; she was just exploring. The long ride got her thinking in terms of “days on buses away from Idaho,” so she decided to move to Utah to keep pursuing her studies in visual communication and design, just over a day’s worth of riding from Boise. After nearly completing that degree, she transferred to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco in 2004. “But I didn’t know what I was doing,” Lee says. “I wanted to go deeper.”
When she first got to the city, San Francisco felt tiny in comparison to New York, or Seoul for that matter. She wrapped up school in 2008, right alongside the Great Recession. Thankfully, she was able to secure a visa and land a job with Lexicon Branding in Sausalito, a company that supports brands including BlackBerry and Febreze with ideating their product’s names. But by then, her family’s restaurant back in Korea had gone belly-up, so she funneled all her money to her family in Seoul. “It was one of the darkest times in my life,” Lee says. “But I knew I needed to be strong, to be the sun for my family.”
After more than five years like this, she realized she was broke, and emotionally broken. An idea came to her out of the blue: She could take charge of her life by running her own business, a restaurant. “It was right in front of me,” Lee says. “It was too expensive to eat out at a restaurant. But I thought I could try and start my own.”
Thankfully, Lee didn’t need to start her culinary career from scratch. By 2010, she already knew Bibimbar’s original owner, who had asked her to help out with the restaurant’s aesthetic design late in 2011. At the time, she was working side jobs to bring in more money, but it was while working on the restaurant — using her skills to do something tied to her culture and home — that she felt a recurring depression lifting. Just a year later, in 2012, her friend decided to sell Lee the still-burgeoning business. “I was so nervous,” Lee says.
At first she was concerned about her visa status. As her five-year sponsorship was ending, she was trying to find a way to stay in the States. It took some finagling, but by 2013 she had transferred from a sponsor visa to an investor visa and legally owned Bibimbar. She says she remembers feeling sheepish, wanting to observe and learn the ropes rather than take up space as head chef right away. “I had no experience running a restaurant,” Lee says. “I used to introduce myself as a staff member, not the owner.”
After she felt comfortable, she began to incorporate a quicker, trendier approach to service, implementing cafeteria-style counter service and easy-to-understand menu prompts, which led to higher cash flow. Getting that style down pat is thanks, at least in part, to Lee’s right-hand person, Corey “Cori” McGee. McGee grew up in San Francisco, but the only Korean food she knew was kimchi. It was while teaching in Leavenworth, Kansas, that she first learned anything about Korean culture, by helping a friend open a Korean restaurant. Then, in October 2017, she moved back to San Francisco to take care of her parents. “I only applied to Bibimbar because I wanted a job I could work during lunchtime,” McGee says. But Lee’s positive energy and desire to spread joy inspired McGee to stick around.
Then Lee’s family joined the businesses too. Her brother, Hyomin “Ryan” Lee, came to the States in 2014, followed a year later by her mother. When he first arrived, her brother worked at Japanese restaurant Kabuto on Geary Boulevard before joining Lee on her quest full-time just a few years later. Lee then opened Excelsior’s full-service restaurant Hwaro in 2015 at 4516 Mission Street, right on the main drag. She says that location became the family’s nest, a kind of engine of positivity and creativity. Just six months later, in 2018, the family opened Matko on the Embarcadero. In 2020, she opened another Matko on Market Street. That opening gave McGee a chance to take on a management role at both Bibimbar and Matko. Hwaro eventually closed due to familiar reasons — lack of foot traffic, high operating costs — but Lee just reopened the Korner Store, a tiny restaurant for soju slushies and house music, in the space in mid-February 2023.
It was through all of this expansion that it became clear to Lee exactly what it was she was doing: spreading her culture as a Korean immigrant to people who had never experienced her way of life. She references the noir movie Oldboy as an example of enjoying Korean culture without any stereotyping; it’s Korean because it was made by Koreans, not for any reductive properties. Mama Ahn, for example, chants and prays for wealth and prosperity while she cooks the food for Lee’s restaurants — but diners only experience the end goal of the preparation. “I’m so grateful to be Korean,” Lee says. “But when I started Bibimbar, it was so undervalued.”
These days, things are different. Samuel Hong was sitting at cocktail bar Beehive up the street from Korner Store’s original location when he first heard about the soju slushie haven. He’s a San Francisco-born-and-raised Chinese American who had, at the time, just moved home after a six-year stint in New York. He loved New York City’s K-Town, and when he moved back, he craved something similar. A friend walked by Korner Store the week it opened, and they decided to check out the then-new business. “We fell in love,” Hong says. “It’s the closest analog to that New York K-Town vibe in San Francisco.”
He became a regular. He says big groups, throngs of 10 to 20 people, aren’t so common at some San Francisco bars and restaurants, but they’re a regular occurrence at Lee’s. Seeing Lee’s brother at the register while her mom is in the kitchen never ceases to amaze him and his friends, who he always brings to Lee’s businesses, whether they be from Los Angeles or Seoul. And, somehow, Lee always seems to remember everyone by name. “It’s wild,” Hong says. “And my story isn’t unique. From table to table there are always other regulars bringing their friends, and the cycle perpetuates.”
When Lee hosted a big party at the new Korner Store location in early December, a teaser for the proper reopening in February, more than 200 people showed up. Many came up to her to thank her for opening her businesses. A young woman came to her after eating at BoBop, her new Korean hand roll restaurant in the Mission, with a story about the food transporting her to her childhood. “She said she couldn’t stop thinking about the food,” Lee says. “She started crying, then I started crying.”
Millay’s Angel Davis says Lee’s dedication to the scene continues to impress her. Lee’s always trying to elevate her soju program, providing well-sourced bottles that invoke beauty. Having a slice of home on Valencia Street in Korner Store and spending time among groups of Korean people gave Davis a sense of a real community in the city. She says something like the Korner Store is, as its name suggests, really on most corners in Korea. “I’m much more American than I am Korean,” Davis says. “So when I travel abroad I notice groups of Americans. Her places are like that for Koreans.”
McGee thinks Lee’s restaurants are paramount in the city’s Korean dining scene, too. She says plenty of people come up to her and remark on how Lee’s restaurants push the envelope for comfortable Korean dining options in the city. McGee says in November she came upon a group of men eating at Matko on the Embarcadero. They struck up a conversation with her, telling her how much they thought she might like the Korner Store. When she told them the restaurants had the same owner, their minds were blown. “She’s a visionary,” McGee says. “She’s very humble, and I’m just so proud of her.”
Today Lee lives with her mom, brother, and dad in Daly City, all under one roof. In the more than 10 years she’s been in the Korean restaurant business, she’s seen things change and she’s grateful for that. But her mission is still to share her culture with the world, and there’s work to do. “I’m not a foodie, I don’t have any special abilities with food,” Lee says. “I’m lucky my family cooks and creates together.”
Corrections and clarifications: March 8, 2021, 12:07 p.m. This article was updated to reflect that Corey Lee was the first Korean American chef in California to win a Michelin star, as well as that Lee moved to the States to join her cousin in Idaho.